by DAVID AXE
Last month I accompanied a U.S. Army patrol let by Captain Joe Snowden into eastern Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated Chowkay Valley. The valley is a minor source of illegal poppies and a major source of local discontent and isolationism; Snowden wanted to get in there, convince the elders to stop growing poppies and try to get a foothold for the Afghan government.
It didn’t go well. We were chased out of the valley by armed men. The elders at Snowden’s meetings scoffed at the captain’s suggestions.
Afghanistan analyst Josh Foust insists Snowden is taking the wrong approach:
So we have a tension-filled meeting, in an area the troops almost never visit, with a low-ranking officer berating elders to abandon their one source of income and betray their family members who have taken up arms against the coalition … and I guess it’s a surprise that the area is so hostile? …
Sporadic patrols lasting little more than an hour or so not only don’t do much, they dramatically increase the chance of violence, since the invading soldiers are not regular visitors enough for their methods of coercion — primarily the implicit threat of violence, which, again, hypocritically, they react against violently when locals do it — to be considered benign.
Now imagine if, instead of only visiting once a month for a couple of hours, this same unit was allowed — ordered, even — to spend the night. While it’s lunacy to elevate [the warrior code] pashtunwali to a definable, enforceable thing to manipulate, Pashtuns do take the concept of hospitality very seriously.
If the elders are responsible for the soldiers’ protection, and they still come under attack, that changes the culturally-acceptable ways in which they [the soldiers] can react substantially. In that scenario, a violent response stops being the result of careless and arrogant infidels, and starts becoming punishment for either making promises the elders cannot keep (“you will not be touched”) or for the elders lying to the soldiers to try to kill them.
A source close to the story called Foust’s proposal “laughable.” Foust “has no understanding of the symbiotic relationship we share with the villagers,” the source said.
Snowden himself wrote me to say that the current approach can work, with patience:
We’re starting to get very good reception with the major power-player within the region in respect to tribal security. Though unsure of his motives, we will be able to leverage this to have more tribal involvement within the processes of the district government. I know that it’s probably small to most folks, but baby steps can be pretty huge with the Pashtun.